Why I Live at the P.O.

by Eudora Welty

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Discuss the story "Why I Live at the P.O." by Eudora Welty.

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The story “Why I Live at the P.O.” is a look into a dysfunctional family. The narrator, Sister, is unable to resolve her inner turmoil about her sister Stella-Rondo. In the beginning of the story, there is peace in the house and all is well with the family. However, that peace did not last long when Stella-Rondo returns home with her adopted child. From then on out, Stella-Rondo and Sister are at odds with each other. Sister has always suffered at the hands of her sister because she was born after Stella-Rondo which made her less valued by their parents. For example:

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A perfect example of a dysfunctional family can be found in “Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty .  In this kind of family, the individuals feel isolated even in the confines of the family. The story pits two sisters against each other: one is the favorite and...

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the other the target child. 

Setting

The setting of the story is the south in a small town.  It is the Fourth of July.  The story takes place in the home of the narrator’s family. The narration is first person point of view with the protagonist Sister serving as the narrator. 

Conflict

Sister faces a conflict of man versus himself.  Her inability to resolve her inner turmoil about her sister creates problems for all of the members of the family.

Characterization

Sister is the local post master for the next to the smallest post office in the state.  Papa-Daddy got her the job.  All of her life, Sister has considered herself a victim because she has always suffered at the hands of her sister.  On the other hand, Sister has as many problems as the rest of the family.  She cannot keep from pestering her family about Stella.  Her actions are often childish and overdramatic.  

Everything was going along fine until her sister Stella-Rondo returns home with an adopted child.  Stella has separated from her husband.  Now, Stella has come back home. The real negativity stems from Stella stealing her husband from Sister who was dating him.

It is Sister’s bitterness and resentment towards Stella that drives her to disturb whatever peace is present in the home.  She is not able to overlook the past with her sister, especially what she sees as her sister’s theft of her boyfriend.

Motif

Lying and deception is a family trait. Rather than really communicate with each other, it has become easier to exaggerate and misinterpret family members’ intentions.  These lies and misrepresentations happen in everyday communication.  Distorting the truth takes the place of normal, sane discussions.  This family embraces negativity, suspicions, and accusations. 

Stella-Rondo finds the most difficulty in telling the truth.  At every opportunity, she blames Sister for some imagined wrong. This causes each of the family members to grow more and more hostile.   Uncle Rondo and Papa-Daddy grow hostile to Sister because of Stella-Rondo’s meddling.

And I tell you it didn’t take me any longer than a minute to make up my mind what to do. There I was with the whole entire house on Stella-Rondo’s and turned against me. If I have anything at all left, I have pride.

The narrator attacks Stella-Rondo and her daughter at every opportunity.   She implies that Stella-Rondo was pregnant at the time of her marriage.  It is her obsession with getting revenge on her sister that causes the crisis.

To Sister, it is obvious that the child really belongs to Stella because she looks like the family.  Stella’s constant lying and manipulation of the facts make Sister doubt anything that Stella says. Although Sister blames everything on the return of Stella and her child, actually it is Sister’s self-pitying and her pettiness toward her that causes the problem.

When she moves out of the house, she goes to stay at the post office. Portraying herself as  peaceful, her involvement in the family feud has not changed.  She keeps track of which townspeople are on her side and which are not.  Moving into the Post Office is just a temporary solution which does nothing to resolve her family problems. 

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How does, "Why I Live at the P.O." relate to Eudora Welty's life during the period in which she wrote it?

In Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O.," Welty does not write about her personal life. She had a positive relationship with her parents—they were particularly supportive of her work in writing.

Welty writes the story based upon what she sees traveling with her job. Visiting a post office in the South, she noticed a woman in the back room, ironing. We can imagine Welty being curious about a woman working at this facility (small, as we can imagine it would be), imaging that in doing domestic chores at "work," perhaps she lived there as well.

The relationship between our narrator "Sister" and her sister, Stella-Rondo could basically reflect the contrast between the siblings: with arguments and resentment. However, it is also suggested (in the eNotes Historical Context page) that Sister and Stella-Rondo are symbolic of different ways of life.

Sister has remained at home in her Mississippi home. Stella-Rondo married and left town, returning with their separation, with a two-year old child she insists is adopted. The contrast between the sisters is obvious. It is suggested, that Stella-Rondo represents a social trend in the North, across the nation where...

...a sense of a unified national identity and culture began to solidify.

This occurred in the North, but not in the South. We can imagine the struggle of the South to completely join in with what was happening in the North in terms of progress, as the South was still reeling from the effects of the Civil War, which changed life dramatically for this agrarian society that depended so much on slavery for its success. Once the South suffered widespread destruction in the war, and then needed to rebuild through the work of their own hands or paid labor—rather than slavery—society changed much more slowly, and not necessarily in the direction of the northern states.

More than any other region, the South retained a separate culture from the rest of the country. 

However, is also noted that while the southern states could not remain independent from the nation, their defeat during the Civil War...

...served in some ways to strengthen regional identity.

Welty, a student of human nature and a sharp observer of the interactions between people, recognized this very different way of life...

One of the most important aspects of southern identity was the small town and rural lifestyle, with close-knit family and community at its center.

Enter the characters of the story. "Sister" represents the southern way of life--unable to understand how different life was for her sister. She is critical, and says to Stella-Rondo:

I think I would do well not to criticize so freely if I were you and came home with a two-year-old child I had never said a word about, and no explanation whatever about my separation.

Still unclear with regard to everything that happened to Stella-Rondo, Welty infers that life in the North...

...was fast-paced and dynamic but also alienating and isolating...

This drives a wedge between the two girls relative to Stella-Rondo's experiences—her:

...wider experiences in the North and her greater sophistication.

Their mother reminds them of how Stella-Rondo has changed:

But you must remember, Sister, that you were never married to Mr. Whitaker in the first place and didn't go up to Illinois to live...

Welty is pointing out the disparity in the sisters' lives, based upon changes to the face of the nation. These changes influence the attitudes of the sisters.

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